Warning, if anyone is reading: I live in the UK, where the 2nd series already finished few weeks ago, and refers to events happening right at the end. And yes, this is my copy of Call the Midwife companion book on a blanket I have made myself. One blanket square at the time.
I confess I’m obsessed with the BBC drama Call the Midwife. I have both series on DVD, and just bought the companion book (I know, I know). I have also read the original books by Jennifer Worth, and enjoyed particularly the first one in the series. Screenwriter and show runner Heidi Thomas also wrote my favourite movie, I capture the castle, and her work has a distinct style and quality – great attention to little telling details, and characters who are never flawless and often quite annoying but always likeable.
It took me a moment to realise that I actually have a personal connection of sorts to the world depicted in both the show and the books. My mother, born in 1933, was much like Jenny Lee – she came from a modestly wealthy upper-middle class family (one of her maternal uncles was a Senior Consultant of a private hospital in Helsinki, the other was a department store owner), and worked as nurse in the 1950s. She trained in a disabled children’s care home – not unlike the one visited by Jenny and Ruby and Doug Roberts, parents of a baby born with spina bifida, in the show – and then worked in a private hospital for elderly patients. She had a job as a ward sister in a London hospital all lined up in the early 1960s, but after her mother suffered a heart attack, she chose to stay in Finland and eventually moved on to work as a banker before marrying. My mother always had a great respect for nursing as profession, but she had no trouble admitting that it wasn’t her vocation; some of the stories she told of her time in the hospital were harrowing. She frequently witnessed her patients dying, and not all of them went peacefully – a woman she had grown very fond of over few months died bolted upright on her bed, screaming with horror, with only my mother in attendance. She was 24, completely unprepared, and that moment left a wound I think never quite healed.
Her photo albums from that period were one my favourite things growing up. The uniforms she and her fellow nurses wore were not dissimilar to the one Jenny wears while working in the London Hospital – complete with puffed sleeves and a little white headpiece. She and her friends were all rather glamorous; the photos from 1950s show them wearing full skirts with little cardigans on their shoulders, and once they moved to the 1960s, it was all boxy Chanel-style jackets, pencil skirts and Russian fur hats in the winter. My mother “walked out” with both a doctor and an airline pilot. With her friends, she travelled, or spend weekends in the countryside, or went to dances or to the cinema – not much has changed, but they sure had much better clothes we do today! At least one her friends had an MG (like the one Dr Turner drives), and often they would all pack themselves in the car and off they would go, to have an adventure: visit places they had never been to, packing a grill and having a barbeque somewhere, sleeping in a barn, swimming in the sea. I think my mother even did some water-skiing.
Her experiences as a nurse were still probably a light year away from those Jennifer Worth describes in her books; 1950s Finland was a prosperous country that had put the difficult times between the wars behind it, was building up its industry and economy, arts and education were thriving. For women like my mother (from “good”, well-to-do families) it was possible to get jobs and live on their own – respectably – for the first time. There certainly was poverty and many people had big families, but cities were small, most people lived in the country, and deprived urban areas like Poplar, and the problems special to them simply didn’t exist. Tenement housing was rarer and generally in much better condition, the war hadn’t devastated the infrastructure in the same way it had in the east of London, demands of weather required housing to be better, fuel in the form of wood was cheap and readily available. Pubs didn’t exist, there was no street prostitution and very little in terms of organised crime. There was near full employment, and youth culture hadn’t quite arrived yet. Unwed mothers were rare, and the shame almost impossible to overcome.
I love the portrayal of women in this show. I cannot remember any other show with similarly large cast of characters I love all equally. None of these characters are stereotypes – the blonde bombshell Trixie is also a very capable nurse and midwife with a brilliantly no-nonsense attitude and great humility; posh, clumsy Chummy has a great compassion for all her patients and a wonderful, natural bedside manner. Sister Julienne is similarly compassionate and forgiving, but also tells without hesitation Jenny, squeamish and often repulsed by what she encounters during her early days in the East End, to get over herself and get on with the work. These are women not defined by men, and their relationships with each others are not defined by men –they have a vocation, a passion for what they do, a sense of purpose that comes from within and willingness to learn. And that is still incredibly rare on TV. There is romance (I cried my eyes out during the scene in which Dr Turner listens to Sister Bernadette’s lungs for signs of TB, my heart breaking for both of them), but it’s not the main offering. Also, it’s Chummy and the frightfully shy, timid Jane who get all the action and not the sparkling pretty-girl Trixie.
The series also frequently speaks of reproductive rights – the pill would come available through the NHS in only couple years’ time, and in the East End it had an immediate, dramatic effect. Given the choice, women embraced it. Abortion was legalised in the UK in 1967, and is available – no questions asked – to all. An episode in the second series shows the options available for women before that: pregnant with the 9th child, living in a one bedroom flat in a house already condemned, Nora Harding desperately tries to induce miscarriage with herbal remedies, Epsom salts, scalding hot baths and by throwing herself down the stairs, before paying for a backstreet abortionist – nearly dying from the operation, carried out with knitting needles and crocheting hooks. Sister Julienne never passes judgement; she has seen women go through it countless times before and understands why they would choose to do it.
My mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and so I have found the struggle of Sister Monica Joan personally poignant. Here is a woman who had in her prime undoubtedly an absolutely brilliant mind, a woman who had a vocation – both religious and professional – and who chose that vocation over the expectations of her upper-class family and all that they could have materially or socially offered to her, effectively cutting ties with them. Her cry, “I used to know so much”, her fear and confusion, broke my heart, because that is my mother – a strong, clever, extremely capable woman who has slowly lost her agency, and with that, her person.
I love the sincerity of Call the midwife – it is another rare quality in these days of constant, willful irony. It is all about what some people will dismiss as small or trivial or sentimental, yet these are the very things that define our humanity. Birth. Death. Fear of loss, or of pain, or of rejection. Friendship, love, family, home. Faith, shown in deeds more than words. In the final episode of the second series, Chummy comes near to death because of massive hemorrhage she suffers early in her labour. The nurses and Sisters, suddenly in a position where there is nothing they can do put hope, sit together in silence and put their anguish in work, making the blanket they later give to Chummy, symbolically wrapping her in their love. This scene of women together is incredibly powerful and true.